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HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty Can't Find On-Court Chemistry

For the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, “Showtime,” the term that would become synonymous with their brand of go-go-go, high-flying basketball, was more than a nickname. It helped change the game. At the outset of 1979-80 season, the Lakers, similar to much of the NBA, operated on the brink of disaster: an under-attended, fringe playoff team led by beleaguered head coach Jerry West, the Lakers were soon-to-be sold by team owner Jack Kent Cooke to pay down a divorce settlement. The fifth ring in LA’s three-ring circus, the team needed some juice if it hoped to gain any attention. 

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” a glam-textured and hyperactive sport-dramedy about the two fortune-changers of the franchise—Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah)—isn’t a slam dunk. Despite a plethora of well-tuned performances, its visuals and narratives stumble. Is this ten-episode series about Magic? Magic versus Bird? Buss? The rise of the NBA? Los Angeles culture itself? In a perfect world, the answer would be all of the above. Which might be the show’s intent, but the desire rarely comes to fruition.    

Adapted by creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht from the book Showtime by Jeff Pearlman, “Winning Time” often wants to replicate the success of “The Bronx is Burning,” the 2007 mini-series about the 1977 New York Yankees. The latter series understood how teams reflect their cities, using the Yankees’ combative World Series run—wherein team owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin, and new star player Reggie Jackson feuded—in relation to a summer haunted by a heat wave, a serial killer, a mayoral election and more. Those events were the nucleus to explore the interpersonal parallels between its primary characters. "Winning Time," on the other hand, bumbles around without any strong focal point, causing each character to languish in their own discreet arc without organically melding together. 

The paltry storytelling produces another side effect: underwritten protagonists and antagonists. In the eight episodes given to critics, Magic arrives in Los Angeles from Lansing, Michigan, with a thousand-watt smile and plenty of demons lurking behind those pearly whites. As he begins to acclimate to his new, glitzy surroundings, he develops an unlikely and fast friendship with incoming team owner Jerry Buss. Initially, the world seems to exist at Magic’s feet. The media view him as the savior of the franchise, merchandisers want to flex his star appeal, and fawning beautiful women are in big supply—the latter will prove a major weakness. Some are immune to the young rookie’s schtick: the perennially perturbed, self-loathing West (Jason Clarke) dismisses Magic as too tall to play point guard; his teammates would rather the rookie know his place (at the back); the stoic, imposing captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) is both bemused by the temperamentally opposite point guard and annoyed by the rookie’s perceived shucking and jiving. Simply put, everyone thinks the Magic is fake. 

What’s always made Magic a unique fit for the Lakers, for what eventually would become “Showtime,” was his giddy exterior. Surely, in a town consumed by stardom, this upstart must be another grifter in a long line of them? A similar whisper follows Buss, a physical chemist whose wealth comes from real estate. He’s a salt-of-the-earth owner in a league filled with out-of-touch millionaires. Everyone views him as a huckster looking for a quick buck. Likewise, Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) of the Boston Celtics questions Buss’ resolve to win. Did Buss arrive in Los Angeles, with a hair-sprayed combover, deep-V shirt and big belt buckle, for championships or a lifestyle? The unfocused way “Winning Time” answers these pressing narrative questions leads to poor plotting, and uneasier comedy.

Together Buss and Magic suggest simple parallels as outsiders with sex addictions—one is openly and proudly a sleezeball, the other keeps up a nice guy pretense, even as he sleeps with every woman in sight (it’s the most cunnilingus you’ll see on television), while in the process hurting his college sweetheart Cookie (Tamera Tomakili). But it's all muddled in the series’ sprawling interests in the will to win, and its glib interrogation of fragile male egos. 

Instead the writers pull focus toward Buss building Showtime—the Laker girls, the Forum Club, the mainstay stars who attended the games—and the myriad of players along the way. His naive but inventive daughter Jeannie (Hadley Robinson), accountant mother (Sally Field), and surly head of Forum bookings Claire Rothman (an underutilized Gaby Hoffman) are used to counterbalance those egos. The lens too often wanders from their perspective, stunting any lasting impact.  

Later on in the show, the visionary but exacting head coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) engages in a power play for roster control with his nervous, Shakespeare-loving assistant Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and the spiritually lost and forlorn former player turned announcer turned assistant coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody). The robust ensemble works so well together, especially Brody and Clarke, they almost pull together the snooze-inducing episodes into something watchable. But the series relies on too many surface-level observations on sexism, racism, regret, and Magic’s promiscuity, and wastes these boundless performances. 

The first episode opens on Magic’s impending HIV diagnoses in 1991, before resetting to 1979. Isaiah is perfectly cast as the awe-shucks Magic, Reilly equally relishes playing the scummy Buss, and the pair share an easy chemistry. Basketball purists, however, will have to wait until the end of episode four for any meaningful basketball sequences. And even those are inertly shot and over-edited for a slick sheen whose effect, at best, is jarring. 

The cinematography is similarly tumultuous. The picture switches between 16mm, 35mm, and VHS filters with no rhyme or reason. Fourth-wall breaks leading to irritating monologues and narration further slows the action. The sardonic comedy is hit or miss (an allusion to Kobe Bryant veers towards poor taste, as does a “whites only” party Magic attends). The show’s entire visual language, especially in the Adam McKay-directed premiere, often aims to overwhelm rather than entertain.  

By the conclusion of episode eight—recounting a mob hit, Buss’ near bankruptcy, and a coaching carousel—the Lakers haven’t even hit the playoffs. So if you’re entering “Winning Time” hoping to see Magic’s entire career, you’ll probably need to wait for a possible season two (or maybe even more). And how it’ll weave back to Magic’s HIV diagnosis, if at all, is a head scratcher. On its own, season one does little to ensure it's worth the time. 

Eight episodes screened for review.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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